Has Germany Led the West’s Response toward Russia…and Will It Stay the Course?

Liana Fix

Council on Foreign Relations

Liana Fix is a fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). She is a historian and political scientist, with expertise in German and European foreign and security policy, European security, transatlantic relations, Russia, and Eastern Europe. She is also the author of A New German Power? Germany’s Role in European Russia Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). Dr. Fix’s work focuses on German domestic and foreign policy, the European Union, transatlantic relations, and Europe’s relations with Russia and China.

Prior to joining CFR, Dr. Fix was program director for international affairs at Körber-Stiftung in Berlin. She was also a resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC, and a DAAD/AICGS fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. From 2018 to 2019, she was a fellow for global governance futures at the Robert Bosch Foundation Multilateral Dialogues. From 2014 to 2016, Dr. Fix was a doctoral fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. From 2012 to 2013, Dr. Fix worked as a Mercator fellow for international affairs at the German Federal Foreign Office, the EU Delegation in Tbilisi, and the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Dr. Fix has contributed essays, policy papers, and articles to peer-reviewed journals including Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and the Washington Quarterly, among others. She is also a frequent contributor to international and German-language media.

Dr. Fix received her MSc in theory and history of international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science and her PhD in political science from the Justus Liebig University Giessen. She is a member of the European Leadership Network Younger Generation Leaders Network on Euro-Atlantic Security and of Women in International Security.

Germany has been widely perceived as calling the shots in European crisis management efforts in Ukraine. Some observers argued that Germany has taken on a leadership role not only in Europe, but also for the West in general, with the United States “outsourcing” the conflict management to Berlin.[1] Not without reason has Angela Merkel been named “Chancellor of the free world” by TIME Magazine for person of the year 2015.

Does Germany deserve this credit for its efforts in Ukraine? Is the Ukraine conflict a prime example of a new, more responsible and active German foreign policy, or is it rather a successful example of President Barack Obama’s “leadership from behind”? And can Germany stay this policy course, or could it become the weak link in transatlantic policy toward Russia in the future?

Comparing U.S. and German Approaches

Throughout the Ukraine conflict, the German and U.S. approaches have grown closer and converged over time, despite initial differences. Interestingly, with its reluctance to engage militarily, the U.S. approach has become more German rather than the other way around.

Germany’s policy toward the escalating crisis in Ukraine was laid out by Merkel in a speech in the Bundestag on 13 March 2014, five days before the annexation of Crimea[2]: Germany seeks no military solution to the crisis, but is willing to engage in a three-tier diplomatic process of strengthening Ukraine—sanctioning Russia—facilitating dialogue between Ukraine and Russia through a trilateral contact group under the auspices of the OSCE and a special monitoring mission in Ukraine. This approach reflects traditional principles of Germany’s “civilian power” outlook on foreign policy: a preference for diplomatic and economic over military means, in a multilateral context, and aiming at “civilizing” international relations through adherence to norms and principles.[3]

The U.S. approach, as outlined by Obama in speeches at the White House on 6 March 2014 and in Brussels on 28 March 2014,[4] corresponds with Germany’s policy in all aspects, but puts a special emphasis on reaffirming the security of Central European allies within NATO.[5] This reflects the different historical trajectories and lessons Germany and the U.S. have drawn from the end of the Cold War: For Germany, dialogue was the most important aspect that led to the end of the Cold War, whereas for the United States deterrence played a crucial role.[6]

Despite this commitment to Central European allies, the U.S. has shown restraint on the question of a permanent stationing of NATO troops in Central European countries—something that Germany strongly opposed as a violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Instead, NATO agreed at it Wales Summit in September 2014 on a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which could be deployed on NATO territory within 48 hours. In addition to the small contingent of U.S. troops based in Poland and the Baltic states on a bilateral basis, the U.S. placed additional equipment in Baltic and Central European countries, but on a rotation basis and for a “persistent,” but not permanent, presence.[7]

The most remarkable instance of convergence between German and U.S. policy took place on the question of lethal defensive weapon deliveries to Ukraine. It also shows to what extent transatlantic unity was based on a similar outlook on and understanding of the conflict by President Obama and Chancellor Merkel.

The debate about lethal defensive weapon deliveries resurfaced at the Munich Security Conference in February 2015, when a bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation lobbied for weapon deliveries and the right of Ukrainians to defend themselves, supported by a number of prominent think-tankers in Washington.[8] Repeating her stance that there is no military solution to the conflict in Ukraine, Merkel opposed weapon deliveries, arguing that she could not imagine a situation in which weapon deliveries would impress President Vladimir Putin in such a way that he would believe he could lose militarily. Instead, she asked for strategic patience, recalling her own experience of how long it took until the Berlin Wall finally came down.

During her visit to Washington the next day, President Obama backed Merkel’s position, which gave her not only additional legitimacy in Europe, but also made it easier for Obama to justify his decision as necessary for the sake of transatlantic unity, against the majority of his administration’s view. According to observers and government officials in Washington, this was a lucky coincidence of similar world views and analytical minds: Merkel has not influenced, but rather reinforced Obama’s decision. Despite continuous pressure within his administration as well as from Congress to “raise the costs” for Russia and to supply Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons, President Obama has so far adhered to the common position.[9]

Given the restraint of U.S. policy in the military area, sanctions have become the most important U.S. instrument toward Russia during the Ukraine conflict. Here, the U.S. has pursued a tougher approach from the beginning,[10] with Germany and the European Union initially reluctant to adopt economic sanctions against Russia—which hurt EU economies to a greater extent than they did the U.S. economy, albeit less strongly than initially feared.[11] Vice President Joseph Biden argued that it was “America’s leadership and the insisting of the President, oft times almost having to embarrass Europe, to stand up and take economic hits to impose costs.”[12]

Eventually, however, it was not U.S. pressure, but an external shock—the downing of flight MH17 on 17 July 2014—which led the EU to adopt first economic sanctions against Russia on 31 July, and further restrictive measures in the following months. Germany played an important role in this process: Chancellor Merkel pledged the adoption of stronger sanctions after the conclusion of the first Minsk agreement on 5 September 2014 and has also been a strong proponent of linking a possible lifting of sanctions to the full implementation of the second Minsk agreement in March 2015.[13] Despite initial differences, EU and U.S. sanctions have mostly been adopted in lockstep,[14] and the U.S. waited several times with sanctions announcements until EU unity had been established with the pivotal help of Germany.

In conclusion, U.S. and German policies during the Ukraine conflict have converged over time, with Germany playing a crucial role in keeping the EU together and in lockstep with the U.S.  on the question of sanctions, and the U.S. exercising military restraint with permanent military deployments as well as weapon deliveries to Ukraine. The U.S. approach thereby reflects the German “civilian power” approach with its preference for diplomatic over military means to a greater extent than Germany’s and Europe’s policy has been dominated by more assertive or belligerent policy positions in Washington.

Interpreting the Ukraine conflict solely as a prime example of Obama’s leadership from behind approach therefore underestimates Germany’s own agency: Germany’s leadership role has not only been “outsourced” to Germany by the U.S., but Germany has actively shaped this leadership role and taken the front seat in dialogue and negotiation formats from early 2014 on, in close cooperation with the OSCE and France. The U.S., by contrast, has withdrawn from mediation efforts and is not part of the main format of negotiations, the Normandy-Quartet between Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia. Nevertheless, the U.S. administration strongly relies on the Minsk process, and has no appetite to unbundle or start additional policy initiatives for a resolution of the conflict against the background of U.S. elections in 2016.

Can Germany Stay the Course?

How long can Germany sustain this strong leadership role? Could Germany become the weak link in transatlantic policy toward Russia against pressure of other European states to ease the sanctions regime, given that the initial deadline for the implementation of the Minsk agreement has passed without significant successes? Three factors have to be considered:

  • First, the German domestic context. The German population at large supports Chancellor Merkel’s policy on Ukraine and Russia. Even before the downing of flight MH17 in July 2014, which is often described as a watershed moment, a majority of 50 percent supported economic sanctions against Russia.[15] Within the German political elite, criticism toward Russia was mounting before the Ukraine crisis unfolded. It is therefore justified to speak of a paradigm shift in Germany’s Russia policy.[16] However, the debate on sanctions has not been settled: parts of the business community, and in particular the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, a lobbying organization specifically for Eastern Europe, vehemently oppose sanctions, although accepting the primacy of politics.[17] Also, parts of the Social Democratic Party, although not disagreeing in principle with Merkel’s course, prefer softer and more reconciliatory methods in dealing with Russia.
  • Second, the European context: Despite Russian pressure and various trade and energy interdependencies between European Union member states and Russia,[18] it is unlikely that one single country will become the “Trojan Horse” and break rank with European unity on sanctions—Italy, Greece, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, and a number of other countries are traded as potential candidates. The group pressure, as well as Germany’s position in Europe, is too strong for most countries—with the exception of France, which is closely linked to the Minsk process—to risk becoming an outsider.

However, the latest meeting of the European Council in December and the spat over Italy’s initial refusal to extend sanctions against Russia has shown that Germany’s power clout and leadership role vis-à-vis Russia is open for criticism within the EU.[19] Knowing how important the extension of sanctions is for Germany, future rounds of sanctions extensions could become an open stage for other EU member states to express their dissatisfaction with Germany’s policy in various areas which are of importance to individual member states—the refugee crisis, the unresolved question of austerity policy, or the Nord Stream project.

  • Third, the international context matters, in particular the situation in Syria. The German and the U.S. administrations have stressed the necessity to “compartmentalize” their approaches toward Russia in the case of Ukraine and Syria. Certainly, there will be no “grand bargain” or deal over Ukraine in return for Russian cooperation in Syria.[20] However, the policy of compartmentalization is by nature porous since policy effects always travel across different policy areas. With multiple meetings between Obama/Kerry and Putin/Lavrov in the second half of 2015, the general mood has shifted toward framing Russia as part of the solution in Syria instead of part of the problem. This in turn has an impact on public opinion.

In a poll from October 2015, 41 percent in Germany argued in favor of lifting sanctions against Russia for cooperation in Syria and 49 percent against—and these are numbers from before the Paris attacks.[21] If the terrorist threat is perceived as a greater danger than Russia’s aggressive behavior in the neighborhood by domestic constituencies, for instance as a result of a terrorist attack, policymakers will have to address concerns and might shift their priorities.

Taking all three factors together, a constellation might emerge where Chancellor Merkel’s position toward Russia, in particular her stance on sanctions, is perceived both within the European Union as well as within Germany not as reasonable and balanced, but as increasingly isolated. Member states and domestic actors in Germany might then be tempted to challenge Merkel’s course. This does not necessarily need to have something to do with Russia or the conflict in Ukraine itself, but can be linked to member states’ domestic economic situations or an attempt by the SPD to gain points and to differentiate the party within the grand coalition in the run-up to the elections in September 2017.

This could particularly be the case if the Minsk II agreement fails to be implemented and becomes another dragged-out process of conflict management, similar to other more or less “frozen” conflicts in the neighborhood. In this case, the linkage between the lifting of sanctions and the full implementation of the agreement, as agreed in March 2015 by the EU, will be difficult to uphold. Sanctions toward Russia are unlikely to be extended indefinitely, as it was the case with Iran, because they come at much higher economic costs. Member states might then advocate for a more gradualist approach, lifting sanctions in return for small steps in the Minsk process. In this case, strategic patience would be rather on the side of Russia instead of on the side of Germany and the West. The test for Germany’s leadership will then be indeed what more it can do for conflict resolution beyond the Minsk agreement.[22]

Liana Fix is a DAAD/AGI Fellow from October to December 2015. She is a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) with a special focus on Germany’s role in Europe, Russian foreign policy, and the South Caucasus.


[1] Elizabeth Pond, “Germany’s real role in the Ukraine crisis,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/eastern-europe-caucasus/germany-s-real-role-ukraine-crisis

[2] Regierungserklärung Angela Merkel, 13 March 2014, https://www.bundesregierung.de/Content/DE/Regierungserklaerung/2014/2014-03-13-bt-merkel.html

[3] Hanns W. Maull, “Zivilmacht: Karriere eines Begriffs,” Abschiedsvorlesung Universität Trier, 3 May 2013, https://www.uni-trier.de/fileadmin/fb3/POL/Mitarbeiter/Maull__Hanns_W/Abschiedsvorlesung_Rev.pdf.

[4]  Statement of the U.S. President, 6 March 2014, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/03/06/statement-president-ukraine, Transcript of Brussels speech, 28 March 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/transcript-president-obama-gives-speech-addressing-europe-russia-on-march-26/2014/03/26/07ae80ae-b503-11e3-b899-20667de76985_story.html

[5] See for instance the European Reassurance Initiative: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/06/03/fact-sheet-european-reassurance-initiative-and-other-us-efforts-support-

[6] Stephen F. Szabo, “Can Berlin and Washington agree on Russia?” The Washington Quarterly, 32:4 (October 2009), pp. 23-41.

[7] Press Availability with Secretary Carter at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, 25 June 2015, http://www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/607064

[8] “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do,” The Brookings Institution Report, February 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2015/02/ukraine-independence-russian-aggression/UkraineReport_February2015_FINAL.pdf?la=en

[9] Jennifer Steinhauer and David Herszenhorn, “Defying Obama, Many in Congress Press to Arm Ukraine,” The New York Times, 11 June 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/12/world/europe/defying-obama-many-in-congress-press-to-arm-ukraine.html?_r=0

[10] Daria Marchak and Patrick Donahue, “EU Readies Russia Sanctions Amid U.S. Pressure on Ukraine,” Bloomberg Business, 16 July 2014, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-07-15/eu-leaders-weigh-sanctions-against-russia-over-ukraine

[11] Economic Impact on the EU of sanctions over Ukraine conflict, European Parliament Briefing, October 2015, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2015/569020/EPRS_BRI%282015%29569020_EN.pdf

[12] Remarks by the Vice President at the John F. Kennedy Forum, 4 October 2014, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/10/03/remarks-vice-president-john-f-kennedy-forum

[13] Celeste Wallander, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia at the National Security Council, has explicitly praised Germany’s leadership in establishing European unity on sanctions policy. GMF event “German leadership in light of ongoing crises,” 18 November 2015, http://www.gmfus.org/events/german-leadership-light-ongoing-crises-washington-launch-berlin-policy-journal

[14] Simond de Galbert, “A year of sanctions against Russia – now what?” CSIS Report, October 2015, http://csis.org/files/publication/150929_deGalbert_SanctionsRussia_Web.pdf

[15] ARD-Deutschland TREND, May 2014,  http://www.infratest-dimap.de/umfragen-analysen/bundesweit/ard-deutschlandtrend/2014/mai/

[16] Hannes Adomeit, “German-Russian relations: Change of Paradigm versus business as usual,” IFRI Note du Cerfa 120, February 2015, www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/ndc_120_adomeit_en_0.pdf

[17] “Cordes kritisiert Verlängerung der EU-Sanktionen gegen Russland,” Die Welt Newsticker, 29 December 2015, http://www.welt.de/newsticker/news2/article150415493/Cordes-kritisiert-Verlaengerung-der-EU-Sanktionen-gegen-Russland.html

[18] Chi-Kong Chyong and Vessela Tcherneva, “Europe’s vulnerability on Russian gas,” ECFR Commentary, 17 March 2015, http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_europes_vulnerability_on_russian_gas;  Francesco Giumelli, “Who pays for the sanctions on Russia?” ECFR commentary, 5 December 2014, http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_who_pays_for_the_sanctions_on_russia372

[19] Paul Taylor, “Analysis: Europe’s year from hell may presage worse to come,” Reuters, 20 December 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/eu-crises-idUSKBN0U30BC20151220

[20] “Russia says serious differences remain with U.S. over Syria crisis,” Reuters, 16 December 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-russia-usa-idUSKBN0TX23O20151216

[21] ARD-Deutschland TREND, October 2015, http://www.infratest-dimap.de/umfragen-analysen/bundesweit/ard-deutschlandtrend/2015/oktober/

[22] John Lough, “Ukraine Crisis Prompts a Sea Change in Germany’s Russia Policy,” Chatham House expert comment, 24 November 2014, https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/16320#sthash.1mJe0uhw.dpuf

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.